Human Rights: New challenges – firm commitments and beliefs

by Ambassador Walter STEVENS, Permanent Observer, EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva Human rights implementation and impact, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, Implementation, SDGs, Uncategorized

A year ago, at a Human Rights Day event in Geneva, I met two very impressive sisters, Amy and Ella Meek, 14 and 16 years old respectively. These two young climate activists go to the barricades against plastic pollution. I also met Memory Banda, a young campaigner against child marriage from Malawi and Hamangai Pataxo, an indigenous rights defender from Brazil. I was greatly impressed by their brave and determined activism. To my mind, they not only advocate for the specific causes they defend, but also fight for a better world – for their future and for our children’s future. They, along with many others like them, deserve our wholehearted support. It is beholden upon us – Governments and the international community – to show leadership. That is why we at the EU have always been and will continue to be at the forefront when it comes to the respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of the child.

One of the main challenges facing our children’s future relates to climate change and the need to ensure a healthy environment. At the past session of the Human Rights Council (HRC45), the EU, together with the Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC), therefore presented a resolution urging States to ensure the best interest of the child as a primary consideration in environmental decision-making. Our initiative received wide cross-regional support. The resolution, eventually adopted by consensus, highlights the importance of a child rights-based approach to environmental policy. It also underlines that children should participate in all matters that affect them, including those related to the environment. As President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen recently recalled in her 2020 State of the Union, “while we try to teach our children about life, our children are busy teaching us what life is about (…) asking for change for a better planet”.

Indeed, environmental concerns have progressively climbed up to the top of the political agenda and are now a global priority. That is largely thanks to the voices, actions and strong advocacy on the part of the world’s youth. Taking our lead from those powerful voices and calls for change, and recognising that climate change and environmental degradation pose a truly global threat, we have placed greater emphasis on the link between human rights and the environment. More than 150 countries across the world have formally acknowledged a right to live in a healthy environment in their national constitutions, other laws and jurisprudence, and/or multilateral agreements. The EU’s environmental diplomacy, as well as its internal policies, have also seen a significant shift, with the launch by the European Commission of the ‘European Green Deal,’ designed to make the EU’s economy sustainable and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

As is the case with the ongoing climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic again reminds us of how interconnected we are and how environmental degradation and our lack of care for our environment can lead to the emergence of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. COVID-19 touches us all. It knows no borders. Thus, our response needs to be a global one, a collaborative one, because nobody will be safe until everybody is safe. We are therefore pressing for a strong multilateral response to the pandemic. While the disease does not discriminate, its socio-economic impacts do.  It disproportionally affects women, children and elderly persons, as well as other persons in vulnerable situations, including refugees and migrants. Response measures should therefore take full account of the needs of those most at risk of marginalisation, stigmatisation, xenophobia and racism and different forms of discrimination. No one should be left behind. For that reason, human rights must remain at the heart of global efforts to contain, and build back better from, the pandemic.

Ambassador Stevens with youth activists at the Young Activist Summit 2019 in Geneva.

This also means that emergency responses to the pandemic must respect democratic values and the rule of law, protect civic space, and not unduly curtail freedom of expression, freedom of the press and access to information online and offline. We are deeply concerned about the spread of mass surveillance technologies. Living in an increasingly digitalised world entails many opportunities and we have to nurture them, but there are also many risks that we need to address. Therefore, the international community needs to pay greater attention to the implications of new and emerging digital technologies for human rights. The EU remains committed to promoting the right to an open and free internet, and to protecting privacy and personal data. However, we are also determined to take practical steps to combat hate speech and disinformation online, cybercrime and terrorist content. With regard to the development and application of artificial intelligence (AI), the EU seeks to promote an ethical and human-centric approach. It is with a view to promoting such a human rights compliant digital space that President von der Leyen, in her address, stressed that “Europe must now lead the way on digital – or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us.”

While some of these challenges are relatively new to the human rights sphere, the convictions and principles that guide us in our approach remain the same. They are based on the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the human rights conventions. They do not require any reinterpretation, and we will oppose any attempt to do so. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; everyone can claim their rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. We stand firm behind the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the essential foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. We have always – and always will – underline that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. There is no hierarchy among those rights, whether political, civil, social, economic, cultural, and no subordination of one to the other. Violations of human rights are often the cause of violence, social unrest and conflict. Human rights are therefore crucial building blocks for sustainable development and inclusive and peaceful societies.

That is why, in today’s shifting geopolitical landscape, the EU remains steadfast as a strong defender of human rights and of the UN human rights system and I am proud to represent the European Union at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Echoing the words of European Commission President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address, I believe “we must always call out human rights abuses whenever and wherever they occur”. I believe it is not a threat; on the contrary, it is a form of protection and an opportunity for every State. In the European Union we are, of course, not perfect when it comes to human rights, but we discuss those issues publicly. Criticism and opposition are part and parcel of democratic government and societies and are guaranteed in the constitutions of our Member States. The role of civil society and human rights defenders cannot be underestimated in support of those most in need, in the defence of human rights, fundamental freedom and democratic space, and in order to secure accountability for human rights violations.

As EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, once put it bluntly: “The world risks becoming less free, less prosperous, more unequal, more fragmented.” Rather than disheartening us, it will strengthen our resolve to build more resilient, inclusive, sustainable and democratic societies – to ‘build back better’ in the words of the UN Secretary-General. Young activists like Amy, Ella, Memory and Hamangai believe that their future can be changed for the better – and I share their belief. Human rights are not a ‘nice to have policy’ or an abstract concept to be debated in New York or Geneva. Human rights are real: where they are respected, protected and fulfilled, they can improve the lives of millions of people around the world; they strengthen societies and charter the path for a better collective future for humanity. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and address these new challenges based on the values and principles we stand for and believe in.

H.E. Walter STEVENS is the Ambassador and Permanent Observer of the Delegation of the European Union
to the UN Office and other international organisations in Geneva

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